Airlines boost prices as Hurricane Rita nears.

Essay by bazook December 2005

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Residents seeking to flee Houston by air before Hurricane Rita roars into town are finding that only costly last-minute seats are still available.

Continental Airlines on its Web site yesterday was offering coach seats one way from Houston to Dulles International Airport for as much as $1,937. Searches of the travel Web sites SideStep and Orbitz turned up one-way and round-trip flights between Houston and the Washington area on various carriers from $300 to $624.

Airlines set aside only a certain number of cheap seats on each flight, and passengers rushing out of town have already gobbled them up. Many flights are sold out. Any last-minute tickets typically cost hundreds of dollars more than those bought a week or two in advance. One last-minute, round-trip fare on Continental, Houston's dominant carrier, between Houston and Washington was $516. If purchased two weeks ago, tickets for the flight cost $228.

Adding to frustrations of travelers yesterday were long security lines at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. Some reports said a number of security screeners working for the Transportation Security Administration didn't show up for work. The TSA said it plans to fly 155 screeners from other cities to help with evacuation at Intercontinental and Hobby airports, said spokesman Darrin Kayser.

American Airlines, the world's largest carrier, said yesterday it was replacing four smaller, narrow-bodied planes with larger aircraft, two Boeing 777s and two Boeing 767s. The change will add 360 seats out of Houston's Intercontinental Airport. Travel experts say passengers should not expect those seats to be discounted as a goodwill gesture.

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"Airlines are not a social service industry," said Terry Trippler, an analyst with "Everyone expects the airlines to take a financial hit then criticizes them when they don't make money."

The airline industry...